Thursday, July 26, 2018

"The incarnation of unsentimental love"

My father enjoyed reading J.B. Phillips' The New Testament in Modern English (1958) and it does read well. In 1967 Phillips' Ring of Truth: A Translator's Testimony was published. In it he describes insights he gained from that experience. It's a short book of only five chapters. The fourth chapter is titled "The Truth of Jesus." From that chapter:
Yet woe betide any man who tries to fit this man into any political or humanitarian slot! Those pacifists who would claim him as their champion would do well to remember that it was a soldier, a Roman commissioned officer, who most evoked the admiration of Jesus. The parable of the talents is enough to show that Jesus recognised the fundamental inequality of men in ability and possessions. The stories of Jesus abound in such inequalities, in the difference between master and man, hard working and lazy, prudent and improvident. It is true that he denounced hypocrisy, exploitation, and lack of compassion. But he made no attempt, as probably Judas Iscariot hoped, to make himself a national champion. The "other-worldly" aspect of his teaching cannot be fairly ignored. "My kingdom," he insisted, "is not of this world." Yet it had already "come upon men unawares" and was even then "among" or "within" them. The way men treated one another in this world was of paramount importance, but Jesus recognised the obvious unfairness and injustice in the here-and-now. In the end, justice would be done and be seen to be done, but not in this time-and-space world. Jesus was no sentimental "do-gooder," and he spoke quite unequivocally about rewards and punishments "in the world to come." He declared that a man who harmed one of his "little ones" would be better off dead. Some of the most terrifying words ever written in the New Testament are put into the mouth of Jesus. Yet they are not threats or menaces but warnings given in deadly earnest by the incarnation of unsentimental love.

What I am concerned with here is not to write a new life of Jesus, but to set down my witness to the continued shocks which his words and deeds gave me as I approached the Gospels uninsulated by the familiar cover of beautiful language. The figure who emerged is quite unlike the Jesus of conventional piety, and even more unlike that imagined hero whom members of various causes claim as their champion. What we are so often confronted with today is a "processed" Jesus. Every element that we feel is not consonant with our "image" of him is removed, and the result is more insipid and unsatisfying than the worst of processed food.

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